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How State and Federal R&D Investments Helped Make the “Mississippi Miracle” Possible

As state and local leaders look for evidence-based ways to address high-priority issues like chronic absenteeism and stagnant math and literacy scores, it’s critical to learn from past success stories, such as Mississippi. Thanks to a strong champion promoting evidence-based practices in schools, and a crucial partnership with the Institute of Education Sciences’ Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Southeast, Mississippi moved from 49th to 21st in the nation for reading proficiency. 


A significant evidence base built from decades of research, known as the “science of reading,” has shown that approaches to reading instruction that incorporate five core principles – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension – yield impressive results for improving student literacy. In recent years, states have been passing and implementing laws promoting the science of reading, many of which were passed after researchers began to understand the full ramifications the pandemic had on students. Policymakers have been seeking interventions that will improve student literacy quickly, and so far 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or policies in support of science-backed literacy instruction. Dr. Carey Wright, during her time as the superintendent of the Mississippi Department of Education, was at the forefront of this movement. 

When lawmakers passed Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA) in 2013, Dr. Wright was tasked with revamping the state’s approach to literacy to ensure students’ success under the new policy. The LBPA, known as Mississippi’s reading retention law, requires K-3 educators to be trained in research-based instructional practices – the science of reading – when teaching literacy. It also mandates that students scoring at the lowest achievement level on the third-grade reading assessment repeat third grade.

Dr. Wright understood that implementing such a dramatic shift requires strong and consistent leadership. She has said that “you cannot do this work without a strong state department that believes in leaning in, believes in student achievement, and believes in doing everything possible for the state.” Dr. Wright connected with key stakeholders, like parents and state policymakers, to emphasize the importance of implementing an evidence-based program for improving literacy.

The Mississippi State Legislature invested $9.5 million in the first year of the Language Essentials for Teaching Reading and Spelling program to train its K-3 educators in the science of reading.

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During the first year of the Mississippi literacy law’s implementation, the state legislature poured $9.5 million into the Language Essentials for Teaching Reading and Spelling program. Dr. Wright made sure that, through this new program, all K-3 educators across the state received training grounded in the science of reading. This professional development covered a range of topics and skills, including the foundations of language and reading, comprehension strategies, and writing instruction. The new program also sent literacy coaches to schools that had the highest percentage of students in the lowest two achievement levels on the statewide literacy assessment.


To monitor the effectiveness of the program, Dr. Wright leveraged the Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Southeast. Regional Education Labs are research entities that partner with school districts, state departments of education, and other stakeholders to build and use high-quality evidence to implement policies and practices that improve student outcomes. There are 10 labs across the country, each working with educators and policymakers in their specific region.

The REL Southeast implemented two new tools to evaluate teachers’ knowledge – the Teacher Knowledge of Early Literacy Skills (TKELS) survey and the Coach’s Classroom Observation Tool (CCOT). These tools allowed the lab and the Mississippi Department of Education to track teachers’ engagement with students in the classroom and identify where there was room for improvement. 


The Mississippi Department of Education’s partnership with the REL Southeast allowed the science of reading and its implementation across the state to be closely monitored. When Dr. Wright went to the state legislature each year, she was able to use data from the REL Southeast’s study to demonstrate the program’s return on investment and secure additional funds from the legislature. The study found that participating Mississippi teachers’ knowledge of early literacy skills increased from the 48th percentile to the 59th percentile on the TKELS survey. In target schools, the average rating of quality of instruction on the CCOT increased from the 31st percentile to the 58th percentile.


Dr. Wright’s evidence-driven leadership ultimately led Mississippi to make the greatest literacy gains of all states in 2019. In 2013, Mississippi fourth-graders ranked 49th in the nation for reading proficiency. After eight years of implementing evidence-based reading strategies, Mississippi fourth-graders moved up 28 places to rank 21st in the nation.


Building upon this success, the Mississippi Department of Education and four counties – Canton, Columbus, Laurel, and George -- are now partnering with the REL Southeast on two projects that aim to tackle an emergent challenge: adolescent literacy. The Content Area Adolescent Literacy Project, supports English, social studies, and science teachers to incorporate evidence-based literacy practices in their middle- and high-school classrooms. The other, the Literacy Intervention Project, supports the use of evidence-based practices and literacy interventions for students in grades 4 through 8 who struggle with literacy.

After Mississippi’s resounding success, Dr. Wright is encouraging more state chiefs to take advantage of their Regional Education Labs to support the development and implementation of science-backed solutions. Mississippi’s story is a testament to the importance of drawing from research to identify and implement evidence-based practices to significantly impact student outcomes.

Dr. Wright is now the Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, bringing her evidence-driven approach to students across Maryland.

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